Film Review – Queen & Slim
Queen & Slim
Racism, police violence, societal prejudices, the disaffection and pressure of constantly living under scrutiny based on appearance, the simple wish to just be; these are all issues that African Americans live with on a constant basis. How to eke out any sort of normalcy or ability to explore the self while dealing with all of this has got be excruciating. Knowing that a simple traffic stop from a cop could turn deadly or that going into the wrong store dressed a certain way could end up with authorities coming down on you must be a constant drag. And it is from this perspective that the new film Queen & Slim is born.
At the start of the movie, our unnamed couple is on a tinder date that’s not going very well. The always amazing Daniel Kaluuya plays a slightly cocky guy who is looking to get lucky. Jodie Turner-Smith plays a lawyer who seemed to accept this date out of boredom more than anything. But she is completely disinterested in his advances and he is similarly finding her a bit off putting. The date is cut short, but while driving her home, he is pulled over by a cop for a minor traffic infraction. Asked to get out of the car, the traffic stop ends up tense and takes a turn for the deadly. Suddenly the couple that barely knows each other decide in a fit of emotion to run instead of reporting the shooting. Realizing they are a pair of black people who killed a cop they simply go on the run through multiple states knowing that if they get caught they would be lucky just to go to jail for life. While on the run they become a pair of folk heroes to many African American people that they meet.
Queen & Slim is a surprisingly thoughtful and meditative movie. The bare bones of the scenario sound like a modern take on Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, at one point during the film “Queen’s” relative refers to them as the black Bonnie and Clyde. But this felt much closer the Terrence Malick film Badlands in that it takes its time as a road movie. There are long stretches of characterization with just the two of them getting to know each other as well as dreamy shots of the countryside while on the road.
The big difference between this film though and either of those other examples is this time around the couple are much more victims of circumstance than they are the originators of violence. And that is a major difference. Those earlier films featured white couples going on cross country crime sprees. In both cases, the starring couples are killing and robbing based on a mixture of rebellion, sexual confusion, curiosity, and sociopathy. Especially in the case of Badlands, Martin Sheen’s character is the cause of most all of the terrible things that end up happening. However, Queen & Slim are driven to extremes out of mainly self-defense. They don’t kill the policeman with any joy or thrill. It was strictly survival. Subsequently, almost all of their actions after that point are based on simply trying to live. No matter how the rest of society sees them, these two are essentially good people who are just trying to be.
The performances in this film are universally good. The two stars in particular are always engaging. Turner-Smith is strong and smart. She exudes a willingness to make the tough choices but also has enough empathy for those around her to understand others. Kaluuya meanwhile is one of our finest current film actors. He has those expressive eyes that convey both listening and pain. Whether or not it is for this film, this guy is going to win an Oscar someday. Weirdly, there are a few surprise cameos that also come off well. Sturgill Simpson plays the cop that pulls them over and he is believable as a scared, bigoted officer. Late in the film Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame) and Chloë Sevigny play a couple that help them out of a tight spot. You believe the two of them as a longtime married couple. The largest supporting role has Bokeem Woodbine as “Queen’s” Uncle Earl who gives them major assistance. He is a scary yet understandable character who ends up more 3 dimensional than you assume he will be at first. His character owes her an old family debt. The complications of that family dynamic lead to some dramatic moments for everyone.
Usually I wouldn’t drag outside commentary into a review since you should just judge the film on it’s own. However, I did see Daniel Kaluuya in an interview promoting this movie and he made a comment which resonated quite a bit while actually watching it. He pointed out that you should notice that we don’t know either of the main characters’ names. What does that say about them and us? It’s a well-made point. I think what’s being driven at is, these two could be any black couple. Dealing with the inhumanity of the authorities and society being able to rip your whole life away at a moment’s notice is not unique. African Americans everywhere have to deal with this reality. Creating empathy for them hopefully makes us all see them as more than just scary images. Racism is a problem we all have to reckon with.
Queen & Slim is a thoughtful, timely road trip movie. The acting is spot on and the harsh realities it makes you consider are useful. This film is worth a watch.